Usability violation: link colors that don’t change when visited

Links should change colors when visited to assist the user in navigation. This may be common knowledge to you. Nevertheless, from time to time I run into graphical designers that are not aware of this web convention and why it should be so.

Excerpt from Jakob Nielsen‘s book “Prioritizing Web Usability” [via webmonkey]

Links That Don’t Change Color When Visited

The oldest usability guideline for any type of navigational design is to help users understand where they’ve been, where they are, and where they can go — their online past, present, and future. The three are somewhat interrelated: A good grasp of past navigation helps you understand your current location, since it’s the culmination of your journey. Knowing your past and present locations in turn makes it easier to decide where to go next.

On the web, links are a key factor in this navigation process. Users can stop using links that proved fruitless in the past. Conversely, they might revisit links they found helpful in the past. Most important, when users know which pages they’ve already visited, they are less likely to unintentionally revisit them.

One exception:

The Exception: Command-Oriented Functionality

Command-oriented functionality is the exception to this rule. Showing visited areas is unnecessary for applications in which people might want to repeat actions multiple times. When deciding whether to show visited areas, consider if the action takes people to other screens or merely lets them repeat activities on the same screen. If users are going to other areas, especially to get content, they might only need one visit, so showing a visited link is appropriate. However, if people want to repeat an activity on the same screen, showing visited links is unnecessary.

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12 Responses to “Usability violation: link colors that don’t change when visited”

  1. Stevie D Says:

    Is it just me, or do the links on this very website here not change colour after being visited? I can’t see any difference between fresh and visited links.

    Do as I say, not as I do :-(

  2. Jesper Rønn-Jensen Says:

    Hehe, @Stevie you are absolutely right :)

    We will change this as soon as we have the next working session on the website.

    (usually once or twice a year, we give the site an overhaul, upgrading software, making tweaks and addjustments)

    As you probably know, Thomas and I have been too busy to get much material written. Hope you can bare with us :)

  3. Michael Zuschlag Says:

    A fine guideline, and I’ve been meaning to modify my own WordPress CSS to comply. It’s especially important if you have more than one link to the same content. It’s a waste of time and annoying to click on a separate link and get the same content you covered earlier.

    However, precisely because relatively few sites currently follow this guideline, it has diminished value. If graphic designers don’t know this convention, then probably fewer users know it. How much good is it then? Then there’s the problem of the departure from standard colors on web sites today. If the user returns next week to a site and sees green and cyan links, which are the visited ones?

  4. Jesper Rønn-Jensen Says:

    I have to disagree with you that fewer users than graphical designers know the convention: The designers I’m thinking of are often blinded by things that look good, simple and stunning.

    In their opinion, different link colors look messy, cluttered. You imagine a white horse, but what you see is a zebra when random users click randomly around.

    That’s the designers i’m talking about: Occupied with other things than actual users would be. “How the site looks” vs. “how do I find X?”

  5. Jesper Rønn-Jensen Says:

    Another example that comes to my mind is Amazon. Amazon uses special querystring on every link, allowing them to find out where users clicked on a page, if there are several links on the page to the same content.

    They do it by making every link different, which in turn means that no links are visited before — even though they point to the same content.

    I’d like to see Jakob Nielsen make a business case analysis considering the value it gives Amazon to know what links the user clicks.

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  7. Jermayn Parker Says:

    Agree with you totally.

    However what are your views on menu links??
    I have seen many that do not use this method for the menu. I personally think they should also change.

  8. Christian Watson Says:

    I would suggest that menu links fit into the ‘command-oriented functionality’ category. They are likely to be used many times and so there is no value in making them change color.

    In addition due to the fact that navigation bars usually have a colored background, there is no obvious default color for a visited menu link. Therefore, creating one that fitted in with your own site’s color scheme would not be useful as visitors would not recognize it as a visited link.

  9. Meryl Says:

    Also please consider dropping gray text — it’s very hard on the eyes when on a light or white background. It’s a bad trend that has to stoppp.

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  11. Aku Says:

    I hate when links change color when they are visited. Especially when the colors are default and the web page is looking like rainbow when I have cliked enough links on it.

  12. bob marvin Says:

    My personal preference is to have the links change color. Also I think that visitors to websites are already conditioned to having the visited links change color.